People are way more interesting than computers: making the leap to an Engineering Team Manager (and battling imposter syndrome along the way)
Mhairi McClair, Engineering Manager
I wasn’t always an Engineering Manager: I spent years in a very hands-on engineering role and moving over to a manager role was a mix of intentional and a little accidental. I’d taken on a more customer-facing technical role on a client-facing project, visiting clients to understand and define their requirements, while also leading a team for the first time. As someone who was previously pretty introverted and for the most part focused on solving problems on a computer, rather than dealing with other people, it was quite a jump. But I realised I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and increasing my ‘people skills’ was important to me.
It turns out that people are way more interesting than computers. Did I ever think I’d say that? Absolutely not.
The leap to Engineering Manager: how it really feels
Honestly? I was terrified when I first started people managing, and I suffered hugely from imposter syndrome.
I went from having in-depth detail on what I was working on, as a well-respected individual contributor who knew my work inside out….to suddenly finding myself in a situation where I had to get comfortable with not knowing the intricacies of the projects the people I managed were working on, and on top of that, I was totally second-guessing what people thought of me.
So when I joined Skyscanner as an Engineering Manager, I raised some of these fears and flagged I’d not had any formal leadership training. I was immediately given support and was put on a management training course. That helped build my confidence and address the impostor syndrome that was lurking. Now I ask people for feedback rather than try to second guess what they think — and encourage others to do the same.
I’ve also been able to assuage some worries I had around no longer getting to do any hands-on problem-solving. At Skyscanner at least, Engineering Managers can decide how much to get involved in hands-on problem solving or whether be involved more at a conceptual level in our work. I’ve been able to decide for myself what balance to strike between hands-on technical work and more ‘manager’ work. Of course, different managers do it differently — some are more hands-on, and others stay more with the higher-level concepts. But in all cases, there is still the technical element of the job. I deal more with the architectural level these days than being deep in the details, but that interests me more. I did feel guilty at first about not being able to give the detailed technical answers that I used to be able to provide — but I’m now happier giving that opportunity to others.
For me, the people side is still more interesting these days — but it’s nice to be able to balance both technical skills and people skills. As a result, I also feel I’ve improved my work and social life by becoming a better listener. Now I try to focus more on what the other person is saying instead of trying to think about what my next response will be. It took practice, but I learned to be more comfortable not knowing what I would say next. It’s a great life skill too!
Making real impact
One of the things I really enjoy as an Engineering Manager is how much every day can vary. There are some constants, of course: every morning, my squad has a daily stand-up where we plan our work for the day based on our weekly sprint goals. But after that, it varies: I could be planning the high-level roadmap for the squad, or interviewing for a new member of the team. I could be doing squad weekly planning and retros, tribe operational excellence meetings, design reviews, training sessions, and knowledge sharing sessions.
Having switched from an individual contributor role, where I focussed on just one or two things across the day, I had some reservations about how I’d enjoy having to jump from one thing to another. What I didn’t appreciate is that, as an Engineering Manager, you have a lot of control over your days and how you fill them. I avoid too much context switching, and that works well for me: as an example, I tend to do all of my 121s with my team members on the same day, rather than spread them out across my working week. Those 121s are 100% the most important meetings in a manager’s calendar. Usually, we talk about how the previous week went, any issues or concerns, and feedback.
My experience has been that as an Engineering Manager, you have the opportunity to make both strategic and operational impact. Engineering Managers influence the company’s strategic direction by owning the technical roadmap for their squad, and by sharing that direction with the wider company. At the operational level, the Engineering Manager is accountable for the services owned by their squad. Their job is to make sure that everyone in the squad follows Skyscanner’s engineering principles when working on those services — that we have the right level of support to maintain the services in Production responsibly. Something I’ve really enjoyed is being able to have an effect on is boosting morale, team health and goal delivery. Ensuring a good level of psychological safety, and making the team a place where everyone feels they can belong, share honest feedback, learn and feel confident is really special. I often find myself helping people figure out how to navigate some of the non-technical skills needed to build their careers. That might be things like:
- Communication with stakeholders
- Teaching and mentoring others
- Scoping work for their team or removing blockers
- Aligning with other squads
- Improving the way the team operates
At all levels at Skyscanner, we try to think about how we can give other people opportunities and help them achieve their goals; eg, I might help one of my direct reports grow by encouraging them to support a less senior engineer to lead a project with their guidance.
Related to this, I’ve been deeply involved in the Internal Mobility policy for the company: it’s all about helping people continue to develop, by enabling them to move teams or even departments in engineering, so they can experience different domains or technologies within the business. For example, a Full Stack engineer might decide to round off their technical skills by taking on the role of a Distributing Systems Engineer. Or someone from Car Hire might be interested in working with our Modern Ads tribe. It’s really rewarding to be able to put progression and development centre stage and see people flourish. After being in my previous team for three years, I’ve taken advantage of that policy myself — and it’s felt refreshing to learn a new area of the business, in my case, the Search Experience tribe. It led me to one of the most interesting projects I’ve been involved in here at Skyscanner: working on our front pages! We’re working to make our search pages better and more consistent across the app, mobile web, and desktop. It’s only been a few months, but it’s already exciting.
Thinking of making the switch to Engineering Manager? Here’s my advice
I’ve been in this role for a while now, so I enjoy helping newer managers by sharing my experiences. As such, I figured I’d share some of my top tips if you’re considering making that jump to an Engineering Manager role.
- Build your network, and lean on it. We have excellent manager communities at Skyscanner, so people often share problems they’ve been having, and get advice from other managers who might have dealt with similar issues. It’s a brilliant way to grow and learn — as an engineer and an engineering manager
- Decide from the outset how hands-on you want to be. Don’t go into a manager role thinking you’ll have to put the technical stuff you love behind you — far from it. Figure out the balance that makes sense for you, and don’t let that fear hold you back
- Give honest feedback to others and seek it out for yourself — it’ll grow your confidence if you’re not second-guessing what others think of you, and it’ll help other people grow themselves. You’ll find you increase trust with peers and improve work relationships generally too